Often compared to Psycho, and considered by some to be the first slasher film (more on that here), Peeping Tom took the world by storm upon its release in England way back in 1960.
Sadly, it seems that society wasn’t ready for a film like this, and it even ruined the career of director Michael Powell.
To commemorate this classic movie’s 60th anniversary, we thought we would take a closer look at what went wrong, and why this movie is so much more relevant today!
Ahead of Its Time
1960 was a very different time, and expectations from cinema were very different as well. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho faced struggles when dealing with censorship and reception, and Peeping Tom was no different.
Even before it was released, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) forced Powell to edit out quite a bit of the violence. Then, when it finally was released, the critics at the time were incredibly harsh on it.
Reviews ranged from calling it “garbage” to “downright dangerous”. Many of the subjects like voyeurism, sadomasochism, and violence were too shocking for 1960 audiences and thusly the film was seen as scandalous rather than groundbreaking.
Ruining a Career
Director Michael Powell was even criticized for using his own wife and son in the “home movie” scene, and audiences actually thought it was a form of child abuse.
Years later such accusations seem laughable, but at the time, moviegoers seemed to have a harder time separating real life from a fictional movie. And sadly, Powell’s career would never be the same.
Following him like a dark mark, his association with this “scandalous” movie prevented Powell from finding work. In fact he went from being a very prolific filmmaker before Peeping Tom, to only making a handful of films afterwards.
Amidst all the criticism however, Peeping Tom was praised by one high profile voice in Martin Scorsese. He, and his contemporaries in the 1970’s were behind a cult resurgence that led to it finally getting the praise that it deserved.
That decade was filled with other horror classics like A Clockwork Orange, The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and many more. The world was finally understanding that disturbing horror could easily be a cathartic experience for venting and exploring our fears and anxieties.
And that enjoying films like this didn’t necessarily mean agree with everything the characters do. Powell himself even remarked at this strange turn of events, “I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it.”
Inspiring a Subgenre
As its cult following went mainstream, Peeping Tom would go on to arguably inspire the entire POV/found footage subgenre.
The sequences where we the audience see through Mark’s served as a precursor to found footage classics like Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project, as well as the iconic opening sequence to Halloween.
At the time, most films were essentially stage plays with a camera off the side, recording it. But Peeping Tom was one of the first examples of a film using its camera as its own character, and horror films have never been the same since!
Peeping Tom is currently streaming on Tubi.